Here are the first half of my notes on a seminar on work and ambition run at City Church last week.
Set yourself earnestly to discover what you are made to do, and then give yourself passionately to the doing of it – Martin Luther King
Be careful what you set your hear upon — for it will surely be yours – James Baldwin
Work & Ambition
Introduction: Ambition – a dirty word?
- How ambitious are you and why?
- What do you think might be the difference between a godly and an ungodly ambition?
- What worries you about being ambitious?
A. A biblical framework for ambition
In its holiest form, ambition is simply the desire to use our gifts for God’s glory – Dave Harvey, Rescuing Ambition
1. Ambitious by design
God is ambitious. God works for his glory. c.f. Genesis 1, Revelation 4:11
Made in his image we too were made to be ambitious. Humanity were given work to do and were to be ambitious for God’s glory in fulfilling it. C.f. Genesis 1:26-27, 2:15
God loves good ambition – Harvey
2. Ambition corrupted
The problem is not therefore ambition but distorted ambition. In two ways:
a) Wrong ambition – Work as an idol.
Q. How do you think the fall has corrupted ambition?
Q. What attitudes do we bring with us into the work place when we are working for selfish ambition?
Through the fall a right ambition centred on God’s glory is replaced by a wrong ambition centred on self. Working for God is replaced by work as a god.
Wrong ambition is recognized in the answer to this question: who’s glory (reputation & renown) are you ambitious for? With wrong ambition work becomes a God-substitute in which rather than making God’s name great we want to make our own names great.
Case study: Genesis 11:1-9.
Q. What motivates the workers in Babel?
Q. How does God view ungodly ambition?
A good ambition becomes a selfish ambition when it’s our only ambition. It’s called idolatry – Dave Harvey
Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day. Tim Kreider, ‘The Busy Trap’, New York Times
b) No ambition — Preferring to be idle
Read Proverbs 6:6-11
Q. What does Proverbs have to say about idleness?
3. Ambition converted
In creation we were given good, godly ambitions for work, as a result of the fall that ambition becomes distorted but in the gospel we don’t lose our ambition but see it converted back to an ambition for God and his glory.
In our work ambition is less about the job you do than the way you do your job!
a) We say ‘no’ to selfish ambition
Read James 3:13-16
Q. What is the consequence of selfish ambitions?
b) We pursue a godly ambition
We might be tempted to think that all ambition is now wrong. But there are many examples in the Bible of hard work and godly enterprise.
Read Proverbs 31:10-21
Q. How does a godly ambition feature in the work of this noble woman?
c) A godly ambition is defined as an ambition for God’s glory
Ambitions for self may be quite modest….Ambitions for God, however, if they are to be worthy, can never be modest. – John Stott
i) Jesus was ambitious!
I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do – John 17:4
Christ’s humility did not restrain his enterprise, it defined it. – Dave Harvey
ii) Paul was ambitious
It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation – Romans 15:20
iii) We are called to be ambitious
Read 1 Corinthians 10:31, Colossians 3:23-24,
Q. How does being a Christian change the focus of our ambitions?
In the next post: how do we pursue godly ambitions?
Tim Kreider gets to the heart of our need to be busy exploring what lies behind our endless activity in this penetrating New York Times piece.
Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.
(HT: David S Harvey)
John Stott as a young man was a pacifist even going so far as to join the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship during the second world war. Reflecting on that time he said:
I was sent to at least three clergymen to be sorted out, and looking back I am really horrified at how badly they dealt with me. Not one of them introduced my mind to the concept of the just war. I had never heard of the just war theory.
But as Timothy Dudley Smith records, The day would come when his own study of the Scriptures would carry him beyond any simplistic viewpoint and he would resign his membership [of the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship].
What Stott discovered is that when it comes to what the Bible teaches not all killing is forbidden. All death is a tragedy but not always a breach of the 6th commandment. Stott rooted this theology of just war in Romans 13:1-7 in which Paul teaches that God has given authority to the state to act as an agent of his justice in this world which extends to taking life. In his Bible Speaks Today commentary Stott argues from Romans 13:1-7 that the state has an authority from God to act as his agent to take life. In summary form he argues;
The state has a God-given authority and a God-given role (v.1)
(remember than when Paul was writing there were NO Christian authorities)
To rebel against the state is to rebel against God (v.2)
Three times Paul tells us that the state is God’s servant (v.4a, 4c, 6)
That role includes rewarding those who do good (v.3, 4)
That role includes punishing those who do evil (v.4)
The punishment extends to taking of life (v.4)
Christians should submit to the authority of the state not only because of fear but conscience (v.5)
Turn the other cheek?
What then should we do with passages of the Bible that seem to suggest that Christians are to turn the other cheek? Passages to which Stott himself appealed as a young man? In his book Issues facing Christians today Stott addresses the issue of just war and focuses our attention on the fact that the very verses that preceed Romans 13:1-7, are a call for Christians to love their enemies, Romans 12:17-21. Clearly Paul is not seeking to contradict himself here.
The reason why wrath, revenge and retribution are forbidden us is not because they are in themselves wrong reactions to evil, but because they are God’s prerogative, not ours…It is better, then, to see the end of Romans 12 and the beginning of Romans 13 as complementary to one another.
And here is his key conclusion:
Members of God’s new community can be both private individuals and state officials. In the former role we are never to take personal revenge or repay evil for evil, but rather we are to bless our persecutors(12:14),serve our enemies (12:20) and seek to overcome evil with good (12:21). In the latter role, however, if we are called by God to serve as police or prison officers or judges, we are God’s agents in the punishment of evil-doers. True, ‘vengence’ and ‘wrath’ belong to God, but one way in which he executes his judgement on evil-doers today is through the state.
Stott then sees a natural extension of the same Scriptural principles when the disturber of the peace is not just an individual or group but another nation. The state’s God-given authority encompasses restraint and resistance of evildoers who are aggressors rather than criminals, and so the protection of its citizen’s rights when threatened from outside as well as from inside.
And so John Stott came to change his mind. We cannot say that war is wrong in itself. War has sometimes been, and maybe again, the weapon of God’s wrath and righteous judgment.
When we want what others have community begins to fall apart
Why do we prefer to compare ourselves with those who have more than we have rather than comparing ourselves with those who have less? When we choose to covet what others have we begin comparison becomes a destructive influence. Rather than love our neighbour, we become envious of our neighbour.
Coveting is a gate-way to all kinds of sin. We break commandments 5 to 9 because we have broke commandment 10 first. Why do we steal, lie, murder, commit adultery, etc. because we need to have what is not ours and will do anything to get it.
James has something to say in 4:1-2 about the relationship between coveting, envy and damage to the church; What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? 2 You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight.
James describes, in these verses, how wrong desires have the power to destroy Christian community. (It is important to note that ‘you kill’ in v.2 is not a reference to literal murder but a powerful metaphor to describe real anger and deep hostility.)
Philip Ryken comments: Arguments, factions, hatred & plotting revenge…you can trace them all back to the desperate desire to want more than we have, to want what God has chosen to give to others and not you..whether it be their position or their possessions.
Thomas Manton writes: Covetousness makes people have this sort of sour disposition. Covetousness may be known by its companions – fighting and envy.
In yesterday’s post Charles Saatchi wanted to suggest that coveting is harmless sin but the truth is that a preoccupation with what others have is a way of thinking that will harm us and it will harm the church. That is why God says ‘no’ to it.
We break the 10th commandment by coveting what others have
The easiest way to spot a coveting heart is how we use our money and how much debt we are willing to amount in order to have what others have. When we read the warnings of Scripture we see how deadly this is. Why not read 1 Timothy 6:6-11, Hebrews 13:5 & Luke 12:15 and ask yourself:
How does your use of money reveal the desires of your hearts?
How tempted are we to get into debt (or further into debt) so we can have what others have?
We break the 10th commandment by coveting who other people are
Much coveting is the coveting of the life-style of others or the gifts and aptitudes of others or perhaps the circumstances and situation of others. In the secular world we see it in all the celebrity lifestyle magazines and in the quest for fame in ‘X’ factor but there are plenty of examples from church life of how we envy and want what others have got.
In 1 Corinthian 12:14-20 Paul challenges Christians to stop comparing themselves to others. Calvin writes in his commentary on 1 Corinthians each member should be content with its own place and relative position, and not be envious of others.
Don’t you find it all to easy to want to be someone else at church, or in the wider church?
So, who do you want to be and why?
Do you want to learn from them or simply wish you could be them, even replace them?
How does this covetous desire affect our relationships with those other people?
Thomas Manton warns of the extraordinary power of desire to destroy a church; Self-love is the root of all three; it makes us covet and desire what is good and excellent, and it makes us envy others for enjoying it, and then to break all bonds of duty and love so that we may snatch it from them.
J. John summarised it like this; Whether it is desserts, clothes, houses, salaries, talents, lifestyles or cars, we want what other people have.
How true he is; my wife always picks the better dessert, I always regret buying my latest phone becuase a new one is just ready to be launched. For some wanting what others have should be regarded as a really great thing. Advertising guru Charles Saatchi in a recent book Be the worst you can be wrote;
Coveting is all everyone does, all the time, every day…it’s what drives the world economy, pushes people to make a go of their lives, so that they can afford the executive model of their Ford Mondeo to park next to their neighbour’s standard model. And who would want to married to someone who nobody coveted?
So is coveting a good thing? What is it that others have that you most want? Why do you think we focus more energy on what we haven’t got rather than what we have got? Where do we think contentment is to be found and why?
The 10th commandment – Do not covet
In Exodus 20:17 we read “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.”
The word covet is a word for desire – it means to want or crave something. What the command forbids is not desiring something in itself (a more reliable car, a slightly bigger kitchen, getting married one day) but rather desiring what belongs to someone else. It’s striking how much detail there is in the command too. The commandment goes to great length to warn us that we should not covet anything that belongs to our neighbour; house, wife, possessions, anything at all.
Why is coveting wrong? As we will see coveting is really the gateway sin through which all other sins flow.
In essence coveting is a failure to love God because it is the way we doubt his care and express our discontent with his provision and it’s a failure to love our neighbour because it begins it is destructive of our relationship with others. From coveting comes envy and from envy a heap of other sins. Coveting is stealing in the heart. As hate is to murder and lust to adultery so coveting is to stealing.
Why do we have the 10th commandment?
We covet because we doubt God’s sovereign provision for our lives
In Genesis 3:6 we find the same word translated ‘covet’ in the commandment used to describe Eve’s motivation in eating the fruit. Before Eve took the fruit, because she found it ‘desirable’ (NIV), it’s exactly the same Hebrew word (hmd) as in our commandment. It could just as easily read ‘she coveted it’. She coveted because she wanted something that did not belong to her. What was that? It wasn’t a piece of fruit she desired but the very thing that Satan tempted her to want ‘to be like God.’ The first sin was to covet what belongs to God and we have been sinning this way ever since.
At it’s heart then coveting a sign of discontent with God. Like Eve we demonstrate our lack of contentment in God when we covet. DeYoung comments: Contentment and covetousness are opposites. If you aren’t content , you’re almost certain(ly) coveting.
And that means when we covet we show how we all do break both of the two great commandments to love the Lord our God and to love our neighbour as ourselves.
Tomorrow – how we break the command (even at church!) and how we can keep the command.
‘We should be doing more for the Lord in this great city’ – How CH Spurgeon changed the face of London
What happens to churches that really understands the radical message of the gospel of God’s grace? They make it an urgent priority to proclaim the message of the gospel to their communities & cities and at the same time they make it a necessary priority to love and serve their neighbours in deed as well as word.
I’ve written before on Tim Keller’s book Generous Justice and his summary of the biblical evidence that your attitude to the poor is a measure of your grasp of the gospel. Having read DeYoung & Gilbert’s book on exactly how evangelism and social concern relate to the mission of the Church and the mission of individual Christian I look forward to making some comments soon. Both books are important reminders that whilst the preaching of the gospel is central to our work, where the gospel is at work in our lives, Christians are concerned for the practical needs of the most needy in our cities.
In my reading this morning I was reminded of just how the greatest preacher and evangelist of the British church in the 19th century, CH Spurgeon, was also hugely committed to mercy ministry. Larry J. Michael summarises Spurgeon’s impact on London in his Spurgeon on Leadership writing;
Spurgeon blended evangelism and social concern perfectly. In fact, most philanthropic movements in the nineteenth century originated with evangelicals. Spurgeon saw society as an organic whole.
He built almshouses for the poor (only one was in existence when he came to London). He built seventeen houses for the aged and a school for four hundred children. He erected the Stockwell Orphanage for homeless children. He began the Colportage Ministry to provide books for poor rural pastors. He instituted the Pastor’s Aid Society to help the poor. He also founded the Old Ladies Homes, the Book Fund Ministry, the Rock Loan Tract Society, the Ladies Maternal Society, the Metropolitan Tabernacle Poor Minister’s Clothing Society, the Flower Mission, the Baptist Country Mission, Mrs. Thomas’s Mothers Mission, Mrs. Evan’s Home and Foreign Missionary Working Society, the Gospel Temperance Society, the Tract Society, the ragged schools, the Pioneer Mission, and other ministries.
They all fit his approach to bringing the whole gospel to affect the whole person in every area of life.
Fullerton’s biography of Spurgeon records the birth of Stockwell Orphanage (sometimes called the greatest sermon Spurgeon ever preached);
at one of the Monday evening prayer meetings, which in his day were phenomenal, he said, “We are a large church, and should be doing more for the Lord in this great city. I want us to ask Him to send us some new work; and if we need money to carry it on, let us pray that the means may also be sent.” So the Stockwell Orphanage was really born in a prayer meeting.
In our own times the State has taken on much of this work but the church continues to witness to the gospel in a multitude of ways not least through City Missions up and down the country as well as releasing many volunteers to work with organisations such as Christians against Poverty.
May we continue to find in the gospel reason to join Spurgeon in proclaiming ‘we should be doing more for the Lord in this great city‘.
Fascinating article in this month’s Atlantic Magazine Why women still can’t have it all. Anne-Marie Slaughter is certainly not seeking to put the clock back to a time before feminism but she is calling for a change in work-place culture and a change in priorities and expectations for working mothers.
Interestingly, there is one thing missing from what is a lengthy article – what is all this doing to our kids?
See also Christine Odone’s feature in today’s Telegraph Finally,the lie about working women has been exposed.
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